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Republican officials consider shaking up presidential debate system

7 months ago 31



Top officials at the Republican National Committee will consider a proposal next week to allow candidates to participate in presidential debates that have not been approved by the national party, a potential shift in the nominating process rules as campaigning heats up in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The decision to explore dropping the RNC’s exclusivity pledge — described by multiple people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations — comes as former president Donald Trump has been hammering the party to cancel all remaining official debates, while other candidates have criticized the party for not allowing candidates to confront each other in additional forums.

The party has not scheduled any additional debates after next week in Tuscaloosa, Ala., according to people familiar with the matter.

Since the start of the 2016 election cycle, the Republican National Committee has taken control of the once unruly presidential debate process, setting the standards for qualification, limiting the number of meetings and requiring candidates to pledge not to attend any other debates with other candidates outside of the process. If candidates violate the pledge, they can be barred from the debate stage at future party-sanctioned events.

A spokesperson for the Republican National Committee declined to comment.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has criticized the RNC rules and said he is open to “more freewheeling debates” outside the official party system, even proposing a one-on-one, hour-long debate with Trump. He has said he wants debates before both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, which the RNC has not yet committed to organizing.

“Whether the RNC should be the ones controlling that, I don’t know if that is necessarily the right way,” DeSantis said on Nov. 20, during a town hall on Newsmax.

The RNC is set to host the fourth debate Wednesday at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It will be moderated by a group of conservative news networks, including NewsNation, the Washington Free Beacon, the “Megyn Kelly Show” on Sirius XM and Rumble, a video hosting service. DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy are expected to attend, while former New Jersey governor Chris Christie is still hoping to qualify.

Trump and his advisers have repeatedly pressured the RNC to stop having debates, and Trump has expressed frustration that chair Ronna McDaniel and the committee have continued the process. McDaniel and her allies say she has tried to hold fair debates and be “neutral” in the nominating process, though she has so far avoided laying out a debate schedule for next year. Trump has also criticized her for being neutral in the race.

In the 2016 primary, the Republican Party hosted 12 debates — one each month from August to December 2015, and then in the following year there were two in January, three in February and two in March. There were more debates in 2008 and 2012, in part because the national party had not imposed requirements on the process to limit the frequency and impose standards of participation.

In a recent interview, McDaniel said the party had decided to control the debate process to ­avoid “having 30 different ­debates that are diluting the ­process.” She said that having too many debates would make them “less interesting” and distract candidates from campaigning.

Trump, who has said he should be treated as the nominee because of his polling lead, is unlikely to participate in debates even outside the official RNC system. But if the RNC steps back from its role in organizing the events, other candidates will be free to agree to smaller gatherings.

Christie and Ramaswamy both complained when the RNC told them not to participate in a joint appearance on Fox News.

“The GOP needs more actual argument on substance, not fake one-liners. I agreed to spar with @ChrisChristie tomorrow for a full hour on Fox at 6 p.m. with @BretBaier,” Ramaswamy posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, in response.

The RNC has previously said that any candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates would be barred from future party-sanctioned meetings.

“Voters need more information not less,” Christie posted on X after the Fox meeting was canceled. “Our Party needs more debates and in-depth discussions not less. This is common sense and the bedrock of our Republic. When the RNC stops conversations between candidates from happening that is real cause for concern.”

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